A couple of weeks ago, I watched with great interest how the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) would handle some particularly tough issues during its annual gathering in Nashville. Like any such gathering, there were things that were encouraging, and there were some things less encouraging.
But, I was particularly encouraged to see the SBC decide to do a real, thorough investigation of how it has handled abuse claims in the past. For those who watched, it was clear that there were many present on the floor of the gathering, mostly women, who had never received justice for the abuse they had endured at the hands of an SBC leader or church.
On the contrary, it seems that these abusive leaders were allowed to remain in ministry. They were still considered to be in “good standing.”
It’s not hard to imagine the excruciating pain this must have caused the victims of abuse. Not only did they endure the abuse itself, but then they’ve had to endure a church process that wouldn’t believe them. Then, on top of all of this, they had to watch the pastor that abused them remain in the SBC as he preached, taught, and performed the sacraments. They had to watch as other leaders welcomed him with a handshake or a hug as if everything was perfectly fine.
No wonder these women broke into sobs as soon as the SBC made its decision to investigate these issues properly.
But there are many out there still—across other denominations—who find themselves in this same situation. They have been abused (whether it be sexual abuse or spiritual abuse), and there has been no justice for them. What can be said to them? What can they do?
My heart breaks for these people. So, as a pastor, here are a few thoughts for those who are hurting.
Lament: It is right to grieve over an unjust world.
Lament is a lost art in the evangelical church today—particularly in the West. No doubt this is due to the general affluence and comfort of our modern world, compared to other nations and other times. There is just less to lament.
But, there is still injustice and wrong-doing, and we need to learn to grieve for these things, for these things grieve the Lord we serve. And this mistreatment of God’s sheep ranks up there as one of the most grievous of wrongs (Ezek 34: 7-10).
In the book of Ecclesiastes we feel the lament over these wrongs: “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them” (Eccl 4:1).
Remember: God is near the oppressed and broken-hearted.
Those who’ve endured abuse should remember that God is particularly keen to comfort those who’ve been oppressed. “The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalm 9:9).
Beyond this, God listens to his hurting people. While the church may not have listened properly, while others may not pay attention, God hears you. When the Israelites were under oppression, we are told: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Ex 2:24).
Know: Human courts are fallible, but God’s court is perfect.
We all know that human courts, including church courts, are fallible. But, those who’ve suffered abuse and received no justice feel this reality personally and painfully.
It is sad to see how often abusive pastors are “investigated” by their own church bodies and found to be innocent. People forget that in the spiritual abuse cases of Mark Driscoll, James MacDonald, and Steve Timmis—just as a few examples among many—the initial church investigations supposedly “exonerated” these men. However, it was later determined that they were abusive after all.
In each of these tragic cases, the victims of abuse had to endure the back-and-forth and ups-and-downs of a flawed, human judicial process. While a level of justice is sometimes achieved on earth, these cases show that our ultimate hope must lie elsewhere.
Thus, we must learn to trust in God’s court room. Even if an abusive leader remains in ministry for the time being, someday God will bring his own justice upon them in his infallible, perfect verdict. As Paul reminds us, “Leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:19; cf. Deut 32:35).
Pray: Ask God to bring the abuser to repentance.
While human courts have real limitations and don’t always reach just verdicts, there is always one sure way for an abusive leader to be held accountable: he can confess. In a case on the west coast, a leader who was charged with domineering, heavy-handed behavior (i.e., spiritual abuse) actually came forward to the church as his own accuser. In other words, he admitted he was guilty.
Of course, this is remarkably rare in abusive leaders. As Chuck DeGroat has shown, they are typically narcissistic personalities who insist on their own innocence (and greatness) and blame everyone else for the affair (see his When Narcissism Comes to Church).
But, no one is beyond the reach of God. Pray that God—as miraculous as it would be—would bring that abusive leader to a deep awareness of what he has done and that he would repent to those he’s hurt.
Hope: Look to the perfect Shepherd of the Sheep who loves you and has redeemed you.
After God delivers a scathing rebuke of the bad shepherds of Israel in Ezekiel 34, he doesn’t stop there. He offers a glimmer of hope: Just let the following promise sink in:
“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness . . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. (Ezek 34:11-16).
Yes, our ultimate hope is that God himself will come and be our Shepherd. And he is a Shepherd who does not abuse the sheep but lays down his life for them. That Shepherd is the Lord Jesus Christ, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Dan Boeck says
Thank you for this. After having been in full time ministry as an associate pastor (with varying roles over the years), I was booted from my church for calling out the abuse occurring in a marriage within the church, and subsequently, for addressing an abuse of power by the senior pastor and his wife. Despite a group of professionals brought in to advocate, the leadership rejected their counsel and decided I was the trouble-maker. The ensuing lies and slander as people questioned the leadership has made us both mad and sad. It is hard to wait on God’s justice and understand what forgiveness looks like in this situation. I needed to read this article today.
Thank you for this essay, Professor Kruger. I witnessed the abuse of spiritual power a few years ago and was spiritually abused by a church leader and never had the courage to speak out for fear of being identified as a person who divides that church. A lot of other people were afraid of speaking out as well as this person has developed an extensively huge network in different churches because of “his ministry”. I left that particular church quietly after the person who abused the sisters and brothers also left it in pursuit of further education. As far as I know, he has gained so many more”disciples” somewhere else. Until this day, only my family know what was going on. I deeply hope this abuser does not get away with what he had done. This has left a deep scar in my heart. I have been praying a lot for this person and his wife. I think they are not held accountable and are still covering themselves up with all the “good deeds”. He always said nice things to the pastor to maintain his leadership position, and gained tons of of training opportunities and network. He is zealous after power. He has got so many more ministerial titles and is connected to different ministerial organizations. I have been silent because I think what I’d say about this person would make no difference in the church. The only thing he was doing was to find ways to make me look bad if he sensed there was any hint of disloyalty to his leadership. Everything felt highly manipulative.
This is so helpful. Thank you.
I’ve recently left staff from under a domineering lead pastor and there is no appeal or recourse. Future employment was threatened by the lead pastor if I even hinted to anyone that it was a difficult work situation. The leadership then rallied around the lead pastor, mischaracterizing me, and publicly set up caricature of my communication in order to easily dismiss them and discredit me.
Lament. Remember. Know. Pray. Hope. I cling to the Lord in these things.
Jim Pemberton says
Speaking as a congregationalist, this is certainly the great challenge of congregationalism. The SBC has no place to remove pastors that they didn’t ordain. It’s up to the local church to do that, and it’s up to the local church to ensure that they investigate candidates for pastors and elders and reject any who are unqualified on any basis, including in these matters. That said, as long as a church is willing to allow sister churches to help remove an abusive pastor, where the church has not properly established a plurality of elders to accomplish the same thing, those sister churches can intervene in an authoritative way. This is all too rare, though more and more Baptist churches are adopting a plural elder model, which is hopeful.